Christmas in the Caribbean & West Indies
A Brief History
The Caribbean takes its name from the Carib people- an ethnic group living in the Lesser Antilles when the Spanish began their conquest of America. The Caribbean consists of about 7000 islands along the eastern and northern edges of the Caribbean Sea. The West Indies include the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. However, the terms Caribbean and West Indian are often used interchangeably. The Caribbean can also be expanded to include territories with strong cultural and historical connections to slavery, European colonization and the plantation system.
Protestant missionaries came to the Caribbean in the mid- 1700’s, and continued sharing the gospel there through the 1800’s. Missionaries brought hope to the slave population in the West Indies, hope in a better afterlife despite the suffering in the present one on sugar plantations. Missionaries as well as converted slaves were often persecuted, for missionaries were instrumental in exposing the evils of slavery and ultimately in the abolition of the practice altogether.
It is from these roots that West Indian people get their strong belief in God. Though it varies in actual mode of practice, Christianity is the dominate faith of the Caribbean.
Caribbean people live life with an attitude that believes in bringing sunshine into the darkness of reality. That is the attitude with which they pay homage to the birth of Christ and reaffirm their faith and confidence in the future.
Christmas Caribbean-style is not selfish; it is about having fun and rejoicing in the fact that Jesus Christ was born to man on Christmas Day. It is about behaving like King David and "dancing in the streets" and "making a joyful noise unto the Lord."
Food is a major element of the celebration. Since all of the Caribbean territories and islands were and/or currently are colonies of European nations, this influence can be seen in some of the food in each region. Of course, since dishes are based on foods native to the region, there are many similarities among the 27 territories. Alongside popular American dishes such as eggnog, baked hams, pumpkin and sweet potato pies can be found strong Caribbean favorites. These include black cake, sorrel and ginger beer, garlic pork, ham and eggs, saltfish cakes, white rum, rum punch, bakes and saltfish.
On Christmas morning the ham is sliced and fried with eggs then served with bread. But this Christmas breakfast is not carved in stone. Some families will have saltfish cakes and Trinidadians might do saltfish, souse and bakes (a form of flat, rounded bread, fried in oil).
As sugar cane was the most important crop starting from the 18th century, all the major Caribbean island groups produced rum and still do. Therefore, rum has become a customary part of the holiday celebration.
So, culturally, drinking is a normal and integral part of Christmas for many in the West Indies and Caribbean. For those who have been imbibing alcohol, the ham and saltfish serves as a "cutter" that diminishes intoxication. It also provides "ballast," which is any food that goes with drinking, because confirmed "grogists" (experienced rum-drinkers) caution about "drinking rum on an empty belly." There are house and basement parties, serenading, and lots of church services.
Pray for political stability and ethical, honest leadership from those in power. Pray for improved economic status for all peoples. Pray for an end to exploitation and oppression based on race, religion or rank. Pray for church leadership, ecumenism, and tolerance. Pray for improved health for all. And pray for the hundreds of thousands affected by hurricanes and floods.